I’ve never been to Chez Panisse, the restaurant itself, the part with the nightly prix fixe menu. But I first went to the Cafe at Chez Panisse the summer that I was twenty, working at Whole Foods in Mill Valley, California, and living nearby at my aunt’s Tina’s house. I went with my cousin Katie, who was also at Tina’s that summer, and her saintly then-boyfriend Rob, an un-date-y third-wheel kind of date. We made a reservation, got (too) dressed up, and ordered the Menu du Jour, a three-course meal for the current steal of $30 – though it must have been $25 then, at most. We threw down.
I remember the first course with a clarity that surprises me. It was Little Gem lettuces, which I’d never heard of before, dressed in Green Goddess dressing, which I’d also never heard of before, with slivers of cucumber, beet, and avocado. It was understated, careful, perfectly spare, but not precious. Sixteen years later, we serve a Green Goddess salad at Delancey every spring because of that night at the Cafe at Chez Panisse, and because of that salad. The second course was a pasta, and then tiny profiteroles, both of which were quietly terrific, though I remember neither as vividly as the salad. In any case, what I remember most clearly was the way we felt afterward. We felt like we’d accomplished something. We’d crossed a threshold. We’d taken ourselves to Chez Panisse! The Cafe, anyway! We’d paid for it ourselves! We’d eaten Alice Waters’ food! We’d had experiences.
I’ve been back a few times, and it’s always felt like that. Brandon and I went for lunch at the Cafe the first time I took him to California to meet my family there. We had pizza with nettles on it, the first time either of us had eaten them. Chez Panisse was on our minds when we drafted the first sample menus for Delancey. It was also on our minds we started to reach out to the farmers and ranchers who supply us with most of the fruit, vegetables, and meat we use at Delancey. We wanted to feed our customers food that we could be proud of.
It’s become a cliche, this farm-to-table ideal, a benevolent cliche. In this country, access to good food is a complicated, unequal thing: how nice that some of us can afford to feed our families fresh, organic food, while the rest of the country scrapes by on cheap, GMO crops! I feel as cynical about it as the next guy. But I will never forget a morning at the farmers’ market three years ago, when I was out of my mind with the insomnia and anxiety that I would soon understand as postpartum depression, when Wynne of Jerzy Boyz, who grows our apples and pears and dries oregano for our tomato sauce, put her arm around me and let me cry all over her coat. And I cannot say how happy it makes me that June is on a first-name basis with Eiko and George of Skagit River Ranch, who raise the pigs for Delancey’s sausage – we break down, season, and grind 100 pounds of their pork every two weeks – and the cows for Essex’s burgers. It feels right. It feels right to support people who are doing good work, and to be supported by them in return. I learned that – or a lot of that, at least – from the influence of Alice Waters and the restaurant she started on a hope and a whim almost 45 years ago.
We keep talking about poverty and equality, but we don’t address it in the place where we can impact every child, in the public schools.
All of this to say that I was beside myself with glee when, about three weeks ago, I was asked to interview Alice Waters and write a profile of her for the National Endowment of the Humanities, to accompany the announcement that she has been chosen as one of this year’s National Humanities Medalists. We spoke by phone a couple of Fridays ago – I now have a soft-spoken voicemail from her on my phone: “Hello, Molly. It’s Alice.” (!) – and I still feel electrified by it. I’d read a lot about Alice Waters. You have too, I’m sure. None of it had read prepared me for how gracious she was. We had some phone glitches that meant I had to call her six times, dying a little more with each attempt, and then she had to call me a few more times, before we got a proper connection. But her patience never flagged. And under her quiet grace, she is radical. That’s the word I keep coming back to: radical. She made me want to pump my fist through the phone. She goes for it. Talking about school lunch reform, she said,
All the ways we’re addressing the serious issues of the day are band-aids for something that needs to be addressed systemically. We keep talking about poverty and equality, but we don’t address it in the place where we can impact every child, in the public schools. We’re not making sure every child has access to a real lunch, for free. They can do it in India! They can do it in Brazil! We can do it here. What you’re hearing is my shock. Brilliant people I know are not able to see the truth: whether we’re dealing with the problems in our prison system or anything else, it begins with the care of the child in school right at the beginning. We need to invest in the teachers and schools and the farmers that can feed them.
But what really stuck with me was a point in the conversation when she was telling me about the beginning of Chez Panisse, about her search for the kind of eating experience she’d had in France, the experience of eating what’s in season, the food that tastes best at a given moment, and sharing it with family and friends. She wasn’t thinking about who would come to Chez Panisse; she knew only that she wanted a community restaurant, and that her friends in the counterculture of 1960s and ’70s Berkeley would help support it. “If it wasn’t vital to me, I would have done something else,” she said.
I read somewhere a while ago – maybe on Chocolate & Zucchini, back when Clotilde was writing her very first book – this piece of advice: “Write what you want to read.” It’s pithy, and it sounds obvious, but it meant something to me, and it still does. I think it applies to everything, not just writing. It’s why Brandon had the idea to open Delancey: because he wanted to eat really great pizza in Seattle, and he wanted it badly enough to learn how to make it himself. I’ve witnessed it over and over among friends in the food industry and other creative fields: the projects that catch fire, the projects that really go somewhere, come out of a genuine desire to do something that you want to see done.
I’ve seen her criticized, Alice Waters, for her idealism and her privilege. But the story of how she got to where she is could belong to a lot of us, in ways large and small, and it does. “We didn’t make money in the beginning,” she said. “We lost money. But then it got better. Making money comes from doing something right.”